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milk4.JPGAccording to some family accounts, Augustus “Gus” Buttram, a star running back at Mortimer Jordan High School, was yards away from scoring a touchdown when paralysis struck him.

It marked the beginning of a year and a half of wrenching uncertainty as he lay flat on his back, wondering if he would ever walk again.

The incident occurred long ago in the midst of the Great Depression, when medical diagnoses often lacked the certainty of 21st century diagnoses.  But today, some 80 years later, Buttram’s children are all but certain that their father’s paralysis stemmed from spinal tuberculosis.

The Culprit

A diseased cow apparently was the culprit.

Buttram’s father, Mack, a circuit-riding Methodist minister, had a penchant for trading horses and cows with parishioners and others along his circuit, according to Gus’s daughter, Mary Young of Sheffield.

At some point, the elder Buttram unwittingly ended up with a tubercular cow. The disease was subsequently passed along to Gus after he consumed some of the cow’s raw milk.

Gus, the elder brother of famed character actor Pat Buttram of “Green Acres” fame, ultimately recovered, but not before withering away to 85 pounds.  Using bone extracted from Buttram’s femur, a surgeon was able to raise the diseased vertebra causing spinal compression enough to relieve part of the paralysis.

With the aid of a cane, Gus walked into what, by all accounts, was an unusually productive life: He earned a college degree, married, followed his dad into the ministry, and lived to 92.  He also founded Camp Maxwell, a haven for physically challenged people, according to his son, Mac Buttram of Cullman, a retired minister and state representative who serves Alabama’s 12th District.

Story Not Uncommon

In one respect, Gus Buttram’s story is not uncommon.  Countless families can relate similar accounts of older relatives who were sickened or maimed or even died from consuming raw milk products.

Such stories explain why Dr. Jean Weese, a food scientist who heads the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s food safety team, frequently expresses bewilderment over the dogged passion some consumers still have for raw milk.

cow-udders.jpg“People should understand that milk comes from cows’ udders that are, well, utterly contaminated,” Weese says.  “These udders not only are sometimes dragged along the ground and other unclean surfaces but are also located close to the animal’s sewage system.  Consequently, Ecoli or salmonella or whatever is in the cow’s feces can get onto the udders very quickly.

No Guarantee without Pasteurization

“Without pasteurization, there is no way that we can guarantee the milk will be safe.”

Weese, who grew up in a Kentucky dairy family, counts her family fortunate for having been introduced to the merits of pasteurization by their county Extension educator.

“I’m a dairy farmer from way back, and I’m still surprised by how many people are against pasteurization despite all the good that has come from it within the last century,” she says.

Even so, a growing number of Americans are touting raw milk as a safe, viable alternative — and in a growing number of cases, state governments are buying into it.

In November, Arkansas became the latest state to legalize the sale of raw milk.  Meanwhile, legislators in America’s second leading dairy-producing state, Wisconsin, are also contemplating raw milk legalization.  The Wisconsin Senate passed a bill that would allow dairy farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers from a farm.  The state would only be required to inspect these sites once every two years.

The Growing Public Fascination with Raw Milk

To date, 30 states permit the sale of raw milk in some form.  Alabama is one of 20 states that prohibit sales of the product.

Campylobacter_jejuni2.jpgThe growing demand for raw milk products in recent years has been accompanied by a spike in disease outbreaks, particularly bacterial infections stemming from exposure to Campylobacter (pictured right) and other pathogens.  In fact, bacteria tend to be the most common source of outbreaks associated with raw milk, according to Dr. Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“We have seen dramatic increases in outbreaks associated with raw milk from 2006 to 2012,” says Mahon, adding that Campylobacter is an especially serious bacterial infection that can lead to temporary paralysis.

Another pathogen linked to raw milk consumption, E.coli O157:H7, can lead to especially tragic consequences, including  kidney and neurological problems, Mahon stresses.

Illnesses stemming from other causes, such as brucella bacteria and tuberculosis, have also been detected in recent years, she says.

Children Often Unwitting Victims

In a growing number of instances, children are being introduced to raw milk consumption by friends, parents and other relatives who are convinced that raw milk offers significant nutritional advantaged over pasteurized milk, according to G.M. Gallaspy, director of the Milk and Food Processing Branch of the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Along with seniors and immune-compromised people, children tend to the most susceptible to these risks.

dialysis.jpgThe consequences sometimes turn out to be horrific and costly.

“The costs of treating a kidney ailment associated with the consumption of raw milk can run as high as a half-million dollars — a calamity for people who lack health insurance and a tremendous liability on state governments in cases where they end up covering treatment costs,” Gallaspy says.

There is more than a little irony to this, Weese says, considering that raw milk appears to offer no discernible nutritional advantages over pasteurized products. 

No Loss of Nutritional Content with Pasteurization

“The method used to treat raw milk is a very quick form of pasteurization in which the milk is heated to a very high temperature for a short time,” she says, adding that few nutrients are lost in the course of pasteurization.

This is corroborated by the CDC.  In a series of questions and answers about raw milk posted on its website, the CDC states that pasteurization does not change the nutritional value of milk and dairy products and that these values are secured without the risks associated with raw milk.

For her part, Weese regards the growing public fascination with raw milk with a measure of fatalism.

She recalls a widely reported Ecoli outbreak associated with unpasteurized fruit juice in the mid-1990s that led to a brief public reaffirmation of the benefits of pasteurization.  Weese fears that an outbreak associated with raw milk will lead to a need for a similar reaffirmation of milk pasteurization sometime in the future.

“There is as much reason to pasteurize milk as there is to cook raw meat because the same type of contaminates associated with raw meat — Ecoli and salmonella, for example — can be present in raw milk and can make you very sick,” she says.


Addition Information about Raw Milk and Pasteurization

How does milk get contaminated?

Milk contamination may occur from:

  • Cow feces coming into direct contact with the milk
  • Infection of the cow's udder (mastitis)
  • Cow diseases (e.g., bovine tuberculosis)
  • Bacteria that live on the skin of cows
  • Environment (e.g., feces, dirt, processing equipment)
  • Insects, rodents and other animal vectors
  • Humans, for example, by cross-contamination from soiled clothing and boots

What is Pasteurization and Why Is It Necessary?

Pasteurization is the only way to kill many of the bacteria in milk that can make people sick.

Pasteurization is a process that kills harmful bacteria by heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time. First developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864, pasteurization kills harmful organisms responsible for such diseases as

  • listeriosis, an infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes;
  • typhoid fever, a life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi;
  • tuberculosis, disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis;
  • diphtheria, a disease caused by a toxin (poison) made by bacteria; and
  • brucellosis, an infectious disease that occurs from contact with animals carrying Brucella bacteria.


The Dangers of Raw Milk: Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose aSerious Health Risk (Food and Drug Administration)

Raw Milk Questions and Answers (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)


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